Reports from the field I

Slowly but surely the project is getting going. I’m starting by trying to make contact and build relationships with key actors in Cullercoats, with church leaders, head teachers, community leaders and so on. These early meetings are about getting a better sense of Cullercoats, its geography and history and the challenges it’s facing.

I’m slowly building up a map (both mental and ‘actual’) of the community – you can have a look at that here. One of the first things that has become clear is that what is adminstratively Cullercoats (Cullercoats ward of North Tyneside Borough Council, the blue boundary on the Google Map) is more commonly understood as (at least) two distinct places, Cullercoats village and the Marden Estate.

Cullercoats village is an historic community with its roots in fishing and its location on the sea front, historically just thirteen streets, many of which were destroyed in a poorly conceived and poorly received ‘redevelopment’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s (with links to and echoes of the work of T Dan Smith and John Poulson in Newcastle, fictionalised in the BBC’s Our Friends in the North). Just one street of fishermen’s cottages remain, on Simpson Street, but there are other reminders of the village’s fishing heritage, in the Watch House, the boat yard, and the Fishermen’s Mission, all on the seafront. For many who live in the village, Cullercoats extends only as far inland as the Metro line – ‘over the bridge’ is not Cullercoats.

The Marden Estate dates from the post-war period when the then Tynemouth Borough Council began to develop an estate of council housing for families from the western parts of the borough (such as Balkwell and Chirton). It’s bounded on its eastern, southern and western edges by quite major roads (and on the north by Marden Quarry), making it a fairly contained and defined place. It seems to inspire a quite considerable sense of attachment and belonging, especially amongst those residents who have lived on the estate since their houses were built and who were proud to make the ‘step up’ (to quote one of my interviewees) to the bigger houses and wider streets of ‘the Marden’. Some houses were built privately but most were council houses, though these were largely bought by tenants with the right-to-buy. The estate has changed quite considerably in the last twenty or so years as the right-to-buy has enabled much more movement in and out and as the estate’s houses attract new families, drawn to the coast from across the region and beyond. This newer geography is something that I expect will be quite important as my fieldwork progresses.

The separation of Cullercoats village and the Marden isn’t quite as clear-cut as this suggests, however. At funerals, church leaders tell me, the webs of relationships that connect the two parts of the ward become very clear: family roots lead back from the Marden to the seafront and belie a intertwined geography of family and friendship. Church parishes, school catchments, pub and club locations, and community activities all draw people across the streets and spaces of Cullercoats and the Marden. How these relationships work as the communities change is a question at the heart of my research.